The scratchy and time-consuming radio transmissions that pilots use to communicate route changes before taking off from airports may soon be a thing of the past for some airlines.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is giving the go ahead for a new data and email system that allows tower controllers and airplanes sitting on the tarmac to relay requests and instructions for flight plans.
It’s being touted as one of the most significant improvements to the U.S. air-traffic system, with promises of unclogging airports, saving airlines money and reducing emissions.
“This saves a tremendous amount of an air traffic controller’s time,” Ray Adams, a controller at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, said as he demonstrated the system for reporters Thursday. “This is a huge leap forward.”
The system essentially brings the kind of automation now common to a smartphone into an airplane cockpit. In trials in Newark and Memphis, Tenn., planes flown by United Continental, United Parcel Service and FedEx were able to cut to the front of departure queues and shave time off delays when bad weather descended.
The so-called datalink system is being rolled out in increments and will be at more than 50 U.S. airports by next year, the FAA said in a statement.
FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency expects to spend $741 million to equip airport towers, and it would cost $800 million more to bring the system to the FAA’s regional centers overseeing high-altitude flights.
Huerta acknowledged recent concern about the potential for hacking into airline electronics, and said the agency had taken multiple steps to keep the new data and email system secure.
The program is particularly aimed at more quickly changing flight routes during stormy weather, the cause of most airline delays.
It’s up to the individual airlines to decide if they want to participate and foot the cost of installing new technology on each of their planes. Those that do will be able to leave quicker during bad weather, according to the FAA.
“Those minutes saved not only help the airplane get out sooner, but it saves gas and frees up taxiway space,” said Gregg Kastman, an airline captain for UPS who has helped the freight carrier adopt the new technology.
Currently, if planes need to be routed around bad weather it requires a lengthy radio conversation with a tower controller to deliver the new track before they can even take off.
It’s not uncommon to have more than a dozen planes lined up at busy hubs like Newark or New York’s John F. Kennedy International and each one must take several minutes to receive its new clearance, Kastman said. More time is needed to manually program the route into the plane’s navigation equipment and to check with airline dispatchers to ensure there is enough fuel on board, he said.
Using datalink, a pilot can receive that same new route in seconds.
The route is also automatically loaded into the plane’s navigation computer and sent simultaneously to the airline’s dispatchers, also saving valuable time, Kastman said.
In a demonstration at the Newark airport tower, Adams, who worked with the FAA on the system on behalf of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association union, sent a new route to a plane on the tarmac in less than 15 seconds.
Having a text message with the route also reduces the chances that pilots or controllers will misunderstand, thereby improving safety, Kastman said.